CAIRO: Diplomats who scrambled across the Middle East on Monday trying to put together a Gaza ceasefire expressed optimism but reported little concrete progress in reconciling key differences between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas.
Meanwhile, Israel kept up its offensive in the Gaza Strip, with Israeli warplanes pounding the homes of Hamas leaders and ground troops edging closer to Gaza s densely populated urban center.
Some 910 Palestinians have been killed in the two-week operation, and the urgency around ceasefire negotiations has increased as the death toll has continued to climb. Thirteen Israelis, including 10 soldiers, have also died.
Mideast envoy Tony Blair said Monday during a visit to Cairo that the elements for a ceasefire are in place and expressed hope he would see one in the coming days. The former British prime minister met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak while in Cairo following meetings with Israel s leaders Sunday.
It is going to have to be worked on very hard, and it has got to be credible, said Blair about an agreement, which he said must stop supplies of weapons to Gaza and open the crossings to the besieged territory.
But Egypt, which has put forward a ceasefire proposal and has been mediating between Hamas and Israel, has not announced any progress on the key issue of an international force to monitor its border with Gaza to prevent arms smuggling into the territory. Israel launched its operation Dec. 27 to stop rocket fire from Gaza.
Despite the lack of reported progress, the continued stream of Hamas and Israeli representatives through Cairo indicates a deal is still possible.
A Hamas delegation was headed back to Cairo on Monday after discussing the Egyptian ceasefire proposal with the group s exiled leadership in Syria, said Osama Hamdan, a Hamas representative in Lebanon who is close with the group s leaders.
The Egyptians expect an Israeli delegation to return to Cairo sometime after the meeting with Hamas, Egypt s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki told BBC.
He said Israel and Hamas are progressing slowly but surely because each party wants to score some points and this is obviously the political game that comes at the end of confrontation like that.
The Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, promised victory on Hamas television Monday but said we will deal positively with any initiative that stops the aggression against our people and leads to Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.
In London, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Egyptian negotiators have indicated to him that Hamas is showing some urgency to strike a ceasefire deal.
But there are some fundamental issues to overcome, Miliband told lawmakers at the House of Commons.
Hamdan said the Hamas leadership believes parts of the Egyptian proposal are not in harmony with Palestinian s higher interests but did not provide further detail.
The Hamas delegation plans to meet with the Egyptians to present the leadership s demands, which include an end to the Israeli attacks, withdrawal from Gaza and an opening of the border crossings, said Hamdan.
Egypt and Israel sealed their borders with Gaza after Hamas seized the territory from its rival, Fatah, in 2007. Israel has been reluctant to reopen the crossings without an international monitoring force to ensure that Hamas does not smuggle weapons into Gaza and rearm.
Hamas has resisted the idea of international monitors because it wants control of its border, and Egypt has opposed the presence of foreign forces on its soil. Egypt would prefer that Fatah, led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, man the border on the Gaza side and does not believe it needs outside help to monitor its own crossing.
This is solely an Egyptian task and it will remain so, and whatever you hear in the media is not true, Zaki told BBC, refuting reports that German experts would assist the Egyptians.
Former UN Secretary-General and retired Egyptian diplomat, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, warned Monday that the Gaza fighting could strengthen extremists in the Mideast and create a more radical future generation.
It s a present that the Israelis have given the fundamentalists, said Boutros-Ghali, 87, who now heads Egypt s National Council for Human Rights.
He called the Gaza fighting a catastrophe for the strip s civilian population and said he supported the idea of international forces to monitor a ceasefire.
Turkey has expressed its readiness to put together an international monitoring force.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan s foreign policy adviser, Ahmet Davutoglu, met with exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Damascus on Monday following meetings with the Egyptians.
Also Monday, Arab League chief Amr Moussa said Arab foreign ministers will hold an emergency meeting about Gaza in Kuwait on Jan. 16.